Friday, April 18, 2014

Thurston County Specialized Recreation is in Precarious Budget Situation

Above: On April 9, about 60 participants of Thurston County's Special Recreation program gathered to bowl at Westside Lanes in Olympia. Strikes and smiles were in abundance!
Commissioners to Hold Work Session on Issue May 1
By Janine Unsoeld

A small group of dedicated people in Thurston County are addressing budget shortfalls and issues regarding the specialized recreation program for individuals with developmental or physical disabilities.
James Reddick, president of the PARC Foundation, a local, nonprofit parks, arts, recreation, and cultural organization, recently reached out to Little Hollywood to tell the story.

“I am concerned that the public does not know what is taking place with Thurston County specialized recreation services. What happens if this recreation service is eliminated for this population of citizens?” says Reddick.

Many of the individuals who use the county’s recreation services live with their parents or guardians. Some live on their own and sometimes support themselves with work income earned through agencies like Morningside. 

“I have contacted many individuals and organizations, but I have not received much response. I would like to find or start a group that would be influential in raising funds for special recreation, similar to the St. Peter’s Foundation that supports the hospital,” says Reddick.
Thurston County Specialized Recreation Budget History

Currently, the county contributes about $220,000 and the cities of Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater contributes a combined $23,000 to the program, says Cliff Moore, Thurston County manager. Program users fees are also part of the budget.
Thurston County Recreation Services is a registered contractor with the state Department of Social and Health Services and is able to accept Department of Developmental Disability respite funds for payment of activities.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Moore placed the special recreation program into a larger context, and provided a history of Thurston County’s budget situation overall.

Since 2009, the county support for special recreation services has continued to be reduced.  Moore recounted how 2009 was the year Thurston County suffered a tremendous financial impact due to the economic downturn.

“The county lost 175 positions in 2008-09….Since 2008 until now, we’ve lost 252 positions. The biggest reasons are inflation, an increase in the cost of medical benefits, salary step increases, and fuel for county vehicles….Our largest single source of income is property taxes…and up until 2009, we had a healthy budget from the general fund.”

That year, the special recreation program was going to be cut from the budget. Moore was reminded by this reporter who was present, of an emotional 2009 county board of commissioners public hearing in which passionate testimony was voiced by caregivers and clients of the program.

Moore immediately responded, “In my entire 25 years of public service, that was the single most moving public meeting I’ve ever attended….”

The public testimony and passionate outpouring worked, and after the 2009 public meeting, the commissioners created a combined funding mechanism of the general fund and the Millage Fund that has sustained the program for the last five years.

The Millage Fund

The Millage Fund is established by state statute and requires the county to spend a certain amount of property taxes on social service programs, including special recreation.

Chris Colton, a member of the Thurston County Parks and Recreation citizen advisory group, provided specifics on the Millage Fund, illustrating the range of services required to take care of an individual with developmental or physical disabilities.

“The Millage Fund receives 2-1/2 cents per $1000 from property taxes…however, the Millage Fund's expenditure is greater than its income, and the program needs to cut about $20,000 in spending every year, starting in 2015.

“In 2014, 45% of the Millage Fund was spent supporting special recreation while the rest of the money went to high school transition (12%), parent and family support (9%), intensive case management (14%), senior services (10%), child care development and support (1%), personal counseling (3%), People First self-advocacy (3%), and assault prevention classes (3%).

“The municipalities agree that special recreation is important but….if each city upped its contribution, the $20,000 could be made up.  However, the cities are in a budget crunch and are not inclined to give up more money, at least not at the request of park staff. Also, that rationale is based on the commissioners continuing to require Millage Funds to fund special recreation. This issue needs to be addressed in our future meeting with the county commissioners.”
Efforts to Save Program Comes Up Empty-Handed

Moore says the county strongly appreciates the special recreation program and has worked hard to find a sustainable plan, a programmatic home, and funding for the program. Last year, the county launched an effort to save the program by convening a summit of 17 local organizations in June 2013, but there were no takers to provide the services.

The organizations involved include the Boys and Girls Club of Thurston County, the Hands On Children’s Museum, Morningside, Senior Services of South Sound, United Way of Thurston County, the Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater parks and recreation programs, the PARC Foundation, the South Sound YMCA, and many more.

When the county’s Resource Stewardship department took an overall 10 percent budget reduction in 2014, the summer day camp program for special recreation was cut.

In March, the county moved the program from Resource Stewardship into the public health and social services department on Lilly Road. Moore says it has been good to connect the program with other staff.

“It heightens the awareness, value and importance of the special recreation program to more staff…before, it was always seen as something different. Still, our goal is to find a sustainable long term solution.”

Moore says the Millage Fund will be tapped out in just a couple of years.
Above: Special Recreation participants try different tactics to help their game at Westside Lanes.

Thurston County Special Recreation Activities

Thurston County Specialized Recreation is the only recreation services agency in the county that provides activities and events to individuals with developmental and developmental disabilities.
The current Spring program lists fun field trips to the Puyallup Fair, a trip on the Kitsap Mini Steam Train, trips to see the Tacoma Rainiers, the Point Defiance Zoo, the Olympic Air Show, and more. Locally, the group has a regular bowling club at Westside Lanes, takes walks at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, trips to movie theaters, and more.

In the afternoon of April 9, I caught up with a group of about 60 special recreation program participants at Westside Lanes to see some pretty amazing bowling and lots of smiles.
Virginia Cook, a caregiver for her 50 year old developmentally disabled son, sat nearby to watch him bowl. She said he has memory issues, anxiety attacks, and sometimes get confused. She has been with the program for many years.

“I don’t want them to cut the budget. I rely on this program…I need the respite. I don’t have other people I can rely on too often. I could call a professional caregiver, but my son doesn’t like strangers. Without the program, people like me wouldn’t really have any breaks.”
Cook said she sometimes goes to the mall or somewhere nearby while he’s bowling under the watchful supervision of recreation staff, but then she feels bad if she missed him being happy about getting a strike.

“When he gets a strike, I can go ‘yea!’” she smiles.
Josh Russell, a caregiver with Citizen Access Residential Resources (CARR), sat near his client, watching him bowl a rocking game.

“He’s been bowling here for about 10 years…he looks forward to it. He brings his scores home and puts them up on the refrigerator, and calls his family and tells them. He’s very proud of playing a sport – he’s good at it! He’s beat me a few times. He’s an interesting character….” said Russell.
Just then, Russell’s client got a strike! He immediately came over to me and with a big smile, said, “I like to bowl. I like people.” I gave him a fist bump.

The PARC Foundation Offers Possible Solutions
The PARC Foundation, begun by Reddick in 1998, is dedicated to preserving the vital green spaces of Thurston County’s natural surroundings, expanding and supporting works of art and artists in our community, and ensuring all children have free access to recreational opportunities.

“How can specialized recreation continue to serve individuals with developmental and physical disabilities? In addition, how can this program expand to meet the needs of individuals with developmental and physical disabilities? Specialized recreation has high operational costs due to staff and safety requirements. Most of the participants are on Social Security disability income, or need support through low wage employment, or by parents and guardians,” says Reddick.

PARC serves as a nonprofit financial manager for individuals and organizations that want to contribute to their community, but are not themselves interested in becoming a nonprofit or assume financial accounting efforts.
The organization leverages a number of separate funds to achieve major projects such as the creation of the popular Olympia Skate Court on Cooper Point Road in west Olympia. It currently serves as the fiscal agent for South Sound Hounds, and the Tenino Quarry Pool’s fundraising efforts, and other projects. In the past, it served as the fiscal agent for the South Sound Estuary Association.

For special recreation, the PARC Foundation used a $15,000 grant it received in 2012 from the Nisqually Tribe for a weeklong overnight camp held last year. 

“We applied for the same amount of funds this year, and received $5,000. We were also given $5,000 to put towards a Washington State Department of Transportation grant for a 30-35 passenger bus. We’re still trying to raise funds for the bus. Fundraising is difficult.”

County Commissioners to Hold Work Session on Special Recreation

The county commissioners will meet with the Thurston County Parks and Recreation citizen advisory group for a work session on Thursday, May 1, at the Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Room 280, at 2:00 p.m.

The advisory group wants to reconnect with the commissioners, remind them of the group’s mission, and discuss the plight of the special recreation program. The group was recently instrumental in helping the county update its comprehensive plan for parks and recreation, but now members feel in limbo. The establishment of new goals, and changes in the configuration of the group may be in order.

The program’s move from Resource Stewardship to the county health department illustrates the disconnect between the commissioners and the advisory group. Douglas Bell, a member of the Thurston County Parks and Recreation citizen advisory committee says, “We found out about it in an email.”

The public is invited to observe the commissioner’s work session on special recreation, but public comment will not be allowed. Moore welcomes public comment on the subject at any regular county commissioner meeting on Tuesdays at 2:00 p.m. at the Thurston County Courthouse, Room 280.

Metropolitan Parks District Option?

Moore said that due to new legislation two years ago, a dedicated funding stream for parks was created as the Metropolitan Parks District. Moore says 25 jurisdictions in Washington State have adopted one.

“We haven’t. It takes a vote of the people and creates another tax, so that’s a challenge…but information about it has been provided to the commissioners about that opportunity….As far as I know, no one is leading an effort to create one here, but it could be beneficial for the community. Generally speaking, the overall size of parks and recreation staff increases because there’s a more sustainable revenue stream,” said Moore. In turn, this option could help the special recreation program.

Moore says a 2015 budget for the special recreation program has not yet been established.

For more information about Thurston County Special Recreation, go to the Thurston County website at or contact Cliff Moore, county manager, at (360) 786-5440 or

For more information about the PARC Foundation, go to or call (360) 352-0980.
Above: Leaning helps too....